BY ALLAN HUDSON
Copyright is held by the author.
FOOD IS a necessary staple of everyone’s life. Because of that I toss my loose change in an old cookie jar daily, a bust of Woody Woodpecker I bought in a yard sale, sans cover. Stationed on my night table by the lamp he faces the closet; the ceramic peeping-tom watches me change my clothes all the time. At the end of each month, he and I probably save up $16 to $20. Whoopee! But today is cause for celebration; I counted this month’s take after breakfast and found a couple of misplaced toonies for an all time high of $23.44. I am elated. There will be eight more Mr. Noodles to dole out.
Today’s my day off, Wednesday, the end of January only one day away. My to-do list lying on the kitchen table nags at me, do these, do that, do this, do that, but I grab the pencil sitting next to it and tick off number one, “Donation time!!!!” The Maritime Megamart with over two acres of supreme shopping pleasure is where I’m headed. It’s not far so I decide to walk. I retrieve my wool pea jacket from the closet, gloves from the basket on the upper shelf, boots from the rack. Just before I’m ready to leave, I remember the frosty abstract art on my bedroom window. It’s likely colder than it looks I think, deciding to use a scarf. A Tip Top Tailors suit hanger holds a bevy of coloured wraps, snaked about each other; the brightest and flowered ones belong to my wife. I opt for my favorite grey and black checkered one pulling it from the tangled mess. When I do so, a beige scarf falls to the floor.
I’d almost forgotten about it. It belongs to my son. It’s thick and dotted with flecks of dark brown, if it was stretched open it would read, “Burton” in orange letters. He won a bunch of gear in a snowboarding competition four winters ago. There had been two identical scarves, he gave one to me. I don’t know where mine is now, I gave it away. The memory it evokes is forceful and gives me shivers; the irony of finding it today causes bumps about my flesh. I have to sit down, my mind races with the memory of my first and only visit to the Food Bank. It was the end of January three years ago that this ritual began.
I work in the maintenance department at the Jollywell Hospital. Every year since I’ve been there, our department puts out bins in the lunchroom at the first of December to be filled with non perishable food items. Not for Christmas as our supervisor explained, every one gives for Christmas, we would give ours in January when it was needed more, made sense to me.
Someone taped a loose leaf to the side of one bin. It was a bit crooked with nicely shaped letters from a black marker, “For the Homeless and Hungry.” The bold lines were a revelation for me, I’d never been hungry; as my ample girth would suggest because I’m a bit overweight. I bought more. I even volunteered to deliver the bins. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t.
Manoeuvring four overloaded blue receptacles into my Ford wagon early one Saturday morning around eight, I set out with the elation of doing a good deed, of representing my co-workers, of benevolence. It took me some time to find the building, it wasn’t well marked, which seemed odd at first but I realized a fancy sign wasn’t important. The main building ran parallel to the street, curved sheets of corrugated steel formed walls and ceiling, crusted snow lie in some troughs, the virgin white softening the dull galvanized grey. A smudged and dented garage door about twelve feet wide on the left faces the road, the entryway of patched asphalt is neatly shoveled free of snow and ice. A cleared walkway leads to an extension, an add-on with a gable end facing the street, it looks like a store front except it has no window, only a dark green door, a lighted doorbell the shape of an angel, black four-inch high digits that said 41 and a white sign the size of a license plate, which I couldn’t read from the driveway but I knew it said The House of Plenty.
I backed my car up to the building, off to one side. There were neither windows nor any sign of entrance around the garage door; the whole building had an air of anonymity. I saw a few cars, older models, parked in front along the street. Two men, separate from each other, were on the other side of the roadway having a smoke. A shopping cart from a local grocer stood alone near the walkway entrance, it was rusted in spots, had a missing front wheel. I could see that it contained mostly returnables, some poor man’s daily wages I thought. It dimmed my mood just a bit. I lifted the lightest of the bins from the back seat and headed for the entrance of uninviting green.
The door squeaked a little as I opened it, an early warning system maybe. I pushed my way in with my rump, carrying the bin to enter a dimly lit room. Directly in front of me, six feet away, was a wall extending ten feet to the right. The balance of the room stretched out towards the rear for about twenty feet where there were people waiting. The only thing that matched the low wattage of the bare overhead bulbs was the look on the faces I encountered. It was too quiet. My good cheer vanished like the rabbit in the hat. I rudely stared at the small crowd, my curiosity so intense when I realized these people were here for food. I had come in the wrong door.
The area made an attempt to be bright; white benches along two walls, dark brown fabric padding the seats, the pale blue walls too institutional for me. The temperature was just below comfortable; no one took off their jackets. A faint scent of Lysol was the only welcoming feature. No one spoke, most were just studying me. I wondered what they must be thinking; am I some kind of saviour, am I just a good guy or maybe they resent that I can give, instead of ask for, I can’t tell. None of the expressions change. The only sound was when some of the standing in the back shuffled and a floorboard squeaked.
My eyes focused on a woman at the front of the bench closest to me. She was bundled in a pink ski jacket decorated with long use. Her disappointed face was wrapped with a white scarf in stark contrast to her coat because of its newness. Perched on her lap of tight jeans was a small girl of perhaps four whose hooded coat was neat and pink also. The child’s head rested on her mother’s breast, her little body, only clad in faded jeans and sneakers, shivered slightly in the coolness of the room. I had to look away, it was too sad. I quickly eyeballed the remaining patrons.
They‘re about equal of both genders, more middle-aged than young, all of them too thin. I recognized the older man that sits in the back on the floor; I’d seen him many times downtown trying to be polite as he asked strangers for some change. He wraps his many coated arms about his drawn up knees. Four or five plastic bags squat at his feet like trained pets, probably everything he owns. His head and beard are grizzly grey, unkempt and stringy. I have no idea how old he is nor his name. I doubt he’s going to be able to carry away much when I realize he’s here for the warmth, it’s a line up he won’t get thrown out of.
The two young men that sit on the bench to my right, I can only think of them as punks, are out of place; like that joke about an NAACP tee shirt at a Klan gathering. Open jackets reveal tattoos on their necks. The flames and trident’s make me suspect they’ve been in jail. They stare at the floor. I try not to judge them but with both wearing new clothes, I want to throw them out.
Farther along the same bench sits an elderly woman. When I meet her eyes she haughtily turns them away. Her cheeks are too red from an abundance of blush, the rouge unable to brighten the pale, creased skin. A burgundy pillbox hat like the one Jackie Kennedy used to wear, is pinned neatly to her head. A luxurious fur coat bundles her slight torso. She wears black silky gloves with gemstones crested upon the back. Hat and coat are about fifty years old from my best estimate, the gloves, I’m not sure but they’re shabby too. She lifts her chin. I’m struck by the pride I witness in her bearing. I understand what the posture means; the neat, aging costume tells me she wasn’t always poor.
I try and focus on my mission; this wavering of feelings is unsettling. Setting the container on the floor I address a man that stands to my left in the corner. He’s chest level with a sliding panel that looks about twenty inches high and three feet wide on the wall in front of me. I try on my best smile.
“Where would I take this… this bin?”
I feel guilty somehow about saying food or donation.
The man was bearded and wore workman’s clothes, clean but worn. His somber face seemed kind as he nodded the peak of his John Deere hat at the buzzer to the left of the sliding door. It was unlit and painted the same blue as the wall, playing find me if you can, I hadn’t noticed it.
“Thanks” I said and thumbed the switch. I had to wait a few minutes. I’m usually a talker in a crowd but there didn’t seem anything proper to say; people didn’t come here to meet people. My thinking was disturbed by the cautious opening of the white colored panel. I was confounded by the image it exposed; so much that I didn’t respond to the opener’s presence or request. The portal was like a television set in the wall, the scene so different to the room that I was in. It was brightly lit with shelves of various cans, boxes and bags of food along the walls I could see. People were scurrying about with armfuls of items, others sorting them on tables. They were joking and laughing. I looked quickly around embarrassed at first by the sounds of merriment next door but then I thought, why not? I guessed that these workers are volunteers, people unselfish of their time; they’re not hungry so why shouldn’t they be content. It just seemed so odd, the imbalance of emotions, the uneven see-saw of have and have-nots. My amazement was shorted when a loud voice suggested.
“We’ll only be open at ten.”
I was momentarily taken aback thinking he mistook me for a requester. I frowned at the older man; he was bald with white fringes overlapping his small ears. Round silver framed glasses were stuck on the end of his nose. He had a silver bushy moustache. He lifted his matching brows in question. I pointed to the container at my feet.
“I have some bins from the Jollymore, where would you like me to take them.”
His can’t-you-see-I’m-busy attitude changed with a thankful smile smoothing out the man’s long face.
“Go out to the garage door and give it a good thump or two and someone back there will help you.”
The cover slid back smartly, I was back in the gloom. As I was bending my knees to pick up the bin, the toes of the little girl’s shaking feet I see in my peripheral vision disturbs my concentration. I look up at the trembling child. The voice is frail but flowery.
“Can we go home soon, I’m cold Mommy”
The woman opens her jacket and folds the ends about the little girl. She doesn’t speak words of comfort, perhaps there are none? I’m acutely aware of the bundle of wool and polyester around my neck with a flash of the dozens more at home. It suddenly weighs a hundred pounds. My son just gave it to me. I decided he’d understand, knowing him, he’d do the same thing. Unwrapping the scarf from my head I step towards the woman. She watches me as I extend my hand while pointing at the wrap with my other. She reddens as she looks me in the eyes. I only see uncertainty, nothing to do with the scarf. She accepts my gift to hastily twist it about her daughter’s lower body.
The other people are watching us and I begin to blush. I want to escape so I don’t wait for acknowledgment. Hurrying to my bin, a stranger conveniently opens the door to enter. I quickly dart around the man as he shuffles in. Before the door clunks shut I hear,
“Thank you Mister”
The sincerity of her platitude waifs like warm breath in the nippy air, floating, lingering for only a moment. My neck is cold. Her words fill my heart. Pinpricks flourish along my neck and spine as I think of the crew indoors, the hungry, misplaced and the lonely. I vowed then to feed as many people that my skinny budget would allow. I would never volunteer to deliver the bins again.